Your guide to the Bonnaroo music festival

Bonnaroo wall

If there’s one major American music festival that seems to attract more travelers than any other, it’s Bonnaroo. Begun in 2002, the annual four-day event in mid-June in Manchester, Tennessee brings together upwards of 80,000 people who camp out over the long weekend to hear music from today’s biggest bands from all genres.

If you’re considering making a trip to Bonnaroo for the first time, here’s the inside scoop on everything you can expect, from ticket prices to camping arrangements to the overall atmosphere.

Guide to Bonnaroo: The music
We’ll start with the music, because that’s the main reason everyone goes. The 2012 Bonnaroo lineup includes headliners Radiohead, Red Hot Chili Peppers, and Phish. The rest of the bands are outstanding as well – I’d personally recommend the Beach Boys (!), Fitz and the Tantrums, Tune-Yards, Skrillex, the Civil Wars, Alice Cooper and Santigold.

Aimee Mann Bonnaroo

Aimee Mann performs at Bonnaroo 2008.

 

Because the festival is held on private grounds, there’s no curfew. Bonnaroo is famous for having shows start as late as 3 am, which can lead to an awesome party atmosphere, particularly when a dance/DJ act with a laser light show takes the stage.

In 2008, Kanye West infamously went on two hours late, starting at 4:30 in the morning. This pissed off thousands of people, but I’ll never forget daylight starting to peek through around 5:30 when Kanye was still on stage. Where else can you see a huge star perform as the sun rises? I count it as one of my favorite concert memories ever.

 

The flipside is that by around 8 am, the sun is beating down and it’s usually too hot to sleep inside your tent any longer. On top of that, there’s always some inconsiderate bastard who gets up at 8 and starts blasting music, waking up everybody within a half-mile. Bottom line: You’ll be awake by 8 every morning. Expect very little sleep over the weekend.

It’s for that reason that after 2008, I swore I would never attend Bonnaroo again unless I was traveling in an RV to block out the sun and the noise. I need my beauty sleep!

Unlike Lollapalooza, Bonnaroo has very few trees. When it gets hot during the day, you can’t even lie in the shade and take a quick nap, because shade is at a premium and it’s nearly impossible to find an available spot.

Bonnaroo butterfly girl

Guide to Bonnaroo: Camping arrangements
Get to Bonnaroo as early as possible. There are only a couple of two-lane roads into the site, so if you arrive late in the day on Thursday, expect to sit in traffic for at least an hour, maybe two.

Once you pull into your assigned parking spot, jump out immediately and claim your tent space. There’s limited ground available, so don’t delay, or you may find that your neighbors have gobbled up all the good real estate.

bonnaroo tents

Many people arrive in RVs. If you plan to rent an RV, you’d be wise to rent one in your hometown and drive it to the site. Word is that the RV rental facilities in Tennessee and Alabama sell out around the time of the festival, so you don’t want to be left out.

Personal hygiene is often an issue. Where do people shower over this long weekend? Most don’t bother. There are a handful of pay shower booths available for those who want to clean up. In 2008, a shower cost $10 (and by Saturday I was more than willing to pay!)

A lot of people wash off in the fountains. Others bring baby wipes. If being around smelly people bothers you, this event is not for you.

bonnaroo fountain

Guide to Bonnaroo: Food and alcohol
If you’re on a budget, bring as much food as possible. You won’t be able to take any food or drink (aside from bottled water) into the concert area, but you can keep as much as you like in your car or tent, and you can always go back and forth from your car to the concert area, though the trek can take up to 20 minutes.

Food and alcohol inside Bonnaroo are expensive, as you might expect. There are plenty of options, including numerous vegetarian choices.

 

Guide to Bonnaroo: Atmosphere
More than the other big-time music festivals (Lollapalooza, Coachella), Bonnaroo cultivates a welcoming, friendly vibe. This is primarily due to the event’s history – it began as a jam band fest where bands like My Morning Jacket and the Dead played for thousands of hippies.

Bonnaroo hippie girl

Over the years, Bonnaroo has become more commercial and mainstream, to the point that rappers Eminem and Lil Wayne were in the 2011 lineup. But there are still plenty of jam bands on the schedule. And the camping helps. You get to know your camping neighbors, and there’s a strong live-and-let-live attitude that permeates the event.

That includes plenty of drug use. Pot is easy to find and some vendors even sell bongs and bowls. It’s not officially allowed by the organizers, but if you’re discreet, there’s little chance you’ll get in trouble.

Bonnaroo makes a concerted effort to be green. You’ll find tons of recycling bins, not to mention exhibits that provide information and resources on how to live a more environmentally-friendly lifestyle.

Bonnaroo recycling

Guide to Bonnaroo: Additional info
Tickets for Bonnaroo usually run in the $250 range. They can cost slightly less or more, depending on when you purchase them. But you’ll probably see between 30-50 bands over the four days, so that price is actually an incredible bargain.

For other info like directions, pics, and a map of the festival grounds, check out the official Bonnaroo site. Pay particular attention to the site’s “What Not To Bring” guide.

If you’re attending, take lots of water and have fun!

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About Scott Shetler

Scott is a Chicago-based journalist and blogger who seeks out quirky sights and awesome destinations throughout North America and beyond.

10 comments on “Your guide to the Bonnaroo music festival

  1. Good stuff. However, I recommend you edit the wait time getting into the festival. It could take anywhere from 4-10 hours if you show up in the daytime on Thursday. One to two hour turnaround is miraculous for any arrival time. Otherwise, very informative piece.

    • Good point… I imagine the wait time has increased over the past couple years as they’ve started having bands play earlier and earlier on Thursday.

  2. Bonnaroo is high on my music festival wish list. The line up sounds incredible.

    Also: I am completely in love with Kanye West. Appearing on stage two hours late? Hahah he is amazing.

  3. Ahh, this is where I’m from! (Well, technically I’m from the “big town ” in the area, Tullahoma, seven miles down the road, but same county.) Funny, growing up I would have to tell people I met on the road that “I’m from somewhere between Nashville and Chattanooga” when asked, but now I can just say “the home of Bonnaroo!”

    Are you going this year? Such a good lineup; sad I can’t make it. I’m making a vow, though, that this is my last year not to be there.
    Camels & Chocolate recently posted..The Garden Route- Paddling to the Indian Ocean

    • Nice! I’ve always wondered what it would be like to live in that area and have to deal with all the crazies who pass through every summer.

      I can’t go this year, but I’m living in Chicago so at least I can do Lollapalooza.

  4. Pingback: Best North American Music Festivals | Wanderfly Blog

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